Civil Liberties

Do Cops Just Tase People for Fun Now?

On the day Michael Brown was buried, two federal lawsuits were filed over police using tasers to attack civilians and torture prisoners.

Dante Parker, who died after tased by San Bernardino County sheriffs in early August, in an undated family photograph.

On the first Sunday in August, Brandon Ruff, an offduty sergeant with the Philadelphia Police Department, was given three guns by a friend who wanted to turn them in to the police under the city’s no-questions-asked firearms policy. Little did Ruff know when he walked into a station at 6:30pm, that by midnight he would be assaulted by a half-dozen police officers using Tasers—stun guns delivering up to 50,000 volts—arrested, thrown in a cell, and put under a police investigation.

“You are a piece of f**king sh*t, you are scum, and you are supervisor. You are a disgrace to me, this department and the 35th District. You do not belong on this job,” a desk sergeant yelled at Ruff, after he produced his police ID, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the officer on Monday, seeking damages and a court review of cops who use “their status as police officers to have persons falsely arrested, assaulted and [subject to] malicious prosecution and unlawfully searched... to achieve ends not reasonably related to their police duties.”

Excessive use of force by police is hardly new. But it is unusual when a police officer points the finger at abuses by fellow cops, as Ruff does in his lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania. When Ruff identified himself as a cop, one officer shouted back, “I’ll fucking tase you,” the lawsuit said. A half-dozen other officers then ambushed him as he stepped outside to make a telephone call, grabbing him, roughing him up, shocking him and finally arresting him.

Ruff’s suit was one of two filed in federal court Monday citing police brutality and Tasers. In his suit, Ruff said that Philadelphia police were “deliberately indifferent” to the need for “more or different” training, supervision, investigation and discipline in for “false arrest… [and] evidence planting.” Ruff said the department also turned a blind eye to “police officers with emotional or psychological problems.”  

The second federal lawsuit filed Monday over Taser abuse, in San Bernardino County in southeast California, concerned eight deputy sheriffs who routinely tortured prisoners at a jail with Tasers, even sharing videos of the assaults for entertainment. The victim, Cesar Vazquez, was regularly attacked while working in the jail’s kitchen. The lawsuit has even more graphic details than Ruff’s cop-on-cop violence:

Vazquez “was given a job within the [West Valley Detention] Center as a ‘chow server;’ in that job, Plaintiff was to possess greater privileges than other inmates, including telephone calls, television time, and freedom of movement within the Center,” the suit said. “Soon after starting this job, Plaintiff was told by [San Bernadino County Sheriff Department Captain Robert] Escamilla and [Deputy Sherrif Russell] Kopasz that these two deputies used a Taser or other electroshock weapon on, or ‘tased,’ all chow servers as part of an ‘initiation’ process.”

“Escamilla and Kopasz then proceeded to place their weapons on the Plaintiff’s upper thighs, and produced a shock to the Plaintiff’s body, causing pain so intense that Plaintiff leapt to his feet; Escamilla and Kopasz each laughed,” the suit said, noting that they tased Vazquez once a week or more. “On another occasion, while Plaintiff and other inmates were watching television, Escamilla approached them and said that he was going to hold a ‘taser seminar,’” the suit continued. “Escamilla told Plaintiff to sit down so that the deputies could try to break the Plaintiff’s ‘record’ of the number of electroshock weapons Plaintiff could endure at a time.”

The suit said that Vazquez “cooperated” with another string of taser assaults by [Deputy Sheriff Nicholas] Oakley “since Oakley used a threat of physical harm… which Plaintiff considered more serious than the possible tasing.” The suit said another deputy sheriff, Andrew Cruz, “tased Plaintiff between 20 and 30 times… while housed at the facility,” between March and December 2013.

Both lawsuits say a range of constitutional rights were violated, starting with freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, and due judicial process. The California suit seeks $30 million in damages; the Philadelphia suit doesn’t specify a figure, but calls on the court to look at the “psychological problems” among officers using Tasers.

AlterNet has long documented abusive policing and misuse of Tasers. Civil liberties groups such as the New York Civil Liberties Union have issued reports on police misuse of Tasers. In late 2011, the NYCLU found that in 75 percent of incidents where New York police had used Tasers, the cops issued no verbal warning. In only 15 percent of incidents involving Taser use, the target was “armed or thought to be armed,” NYCLU found.

On Tuesday, the San Bernardino branch of the NAACP held a press conference with the widow of Dante Parker, a 36-year-old African-American man who was tasered by county sheriff deputies on August 12 and later died at a hospital. The NAACP was calling on the federal government to take over the investigation into Parker’s death, as the Department of Justice is doing with Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, MO.

“We are asking for transparent accountability as to what happened to Mr. Parker’s encounter with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies and how and why did Mr. Parker die in their custody,” Samuel Carl Jr., Victor Valley NAACP president, said. “While this instance regarding Mr. Parker’s death is heartbreaking and all the questions and answers have yet to be known, we also stand here today with the realization that African-Americans are dying at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve the community in record numbers.”

The family’s lawyer told the San Bernardino Sun that “the evidence will show in this case that this did not happen as the deputies described it.” The newspaper cited remarks by his widow, Bianca Carlisle Parker, who is left with five children:

Bianca Parker said since her husband’s death, her youngest son, 6-year-old Dan’te Parker, has asked every morning “Why all black men have to die?”

“He was our provider, he was the rock of our family,” she said, beginning to sob. “And I don’t want to go through life being a bitter person but I feel myself having a whole bunch of anger and I’m not an angry person. I’m very forgiving, and it’s not right. He taught me how to be a better person. He taught me how to not be prideful. He taught me how to apologize to people. We’ve known each other since we were 13. This is not just some dude off the street. He was a loving, caring father.”

The more one looks for examples of police brutality and excessive weapon use, the more one finds. George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, wrote after Michael Brown’s killing that estimates based on incomplete reporting by police agencies across America suggest that white police are killing African Americans at a much higher rate than is admitted.

“According to stats compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice, an unarmed African American died at the hands of an armed white police officer at the rate of nearly two per week from 2005 to 2012. Over that 8-year-period, 400 police killings were reported per year. White officers killed a black person, on average, 96 times per year.

“As bad as those figures are, they grossly understate the problem. The FBI statistics are based on the voluntary reporting of local law enforcement jurisdictions. Currently, approximately 750 of 17,000 law enforcement agencies regularly report their figures to the FBI. That means if the ratio holds true for all 17,000 agencies, the annual 96 black deaths at the hands of white cops could be as high 2,170 a year or almost 42 (41.73) per week – nearly six per day (5.94).

Curry said that a conservative estimate—based on cutting those numbers in half—would still mean three deaths at police hands daily. Of course, not every person shocked with a Taser dies. But police agencies across America certainly know that Tasers can be very dangerous, if not fatal.

In March, San Francisco police responded to a report of a young man with a Taser in a city park in a neighborhood that’s become a Silicon Valley bedroom community. Police ended up shooting and killing Alex Nieto, 28, in an incident that prompted his family to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city this past Friday. 

“In the aftermath of the incident, the City and County of San Francisco ('CCSF') and the involved Officers claimed Alex defied Officers’ orders and pointed a taser at them,” the suit said. “To date, CCSF has refused to release the involved Officers’ names. Instead, CCSF has engaged in a media campaign to besmirch Alex’s reputation as a well known San Francisco resident who never sustained a single arrest.”

On Monday, the media covered the funeral of Michael Brown. The same day, two federal lawsuits were filed on different ends of the country, including one by a police officer, saying that police are using tasers to unnecessarily assault civilians and torture prisoners.

On Tuesday, in the same county where a Latino man was mercilessly attacked by sheriff's deputies, the NAACP called on the FBI to take over the investigation of yet another police killing involving excessive force and Tasers. That same day in Georgia, the lawyer for the family of a man who died in April after being tased 13 times held a press conference saying police didn't follow their own rules for using tasers, prompting the police to say that man, Gregory Towns, died from other causes.

And in San Francisco, Alex Nieto’s family is still waiting for answers about why their son was killed by police.